Categories
Analysis Op-eds Science

Science prizes, wealth location and social signals

One count on which I almost always find myself to be an outlier in India is my opinion that the Nobel Prizes and their derivatives belong in the gutter. But while many people in other countries share this opinion of the Nobel Prizes, and often put their weight behind advancing this view, there are very few people who focus on similar issues with Indian prizes.

For example, I just sent my colleagues at The Wire a note suggesting that we desist where and when possible to play up notions like eminence, vis-à-vis scientists, and not associate anything but the quality of one’s work with their success. My concern had been prompted by a PTI copy advertising the fact that scientists, “including from MIT, Stanford University and Harvard University in the US”, had been awarded the 2020 Infosys Prizes.

My congratulations to the laureates for doing good work, irrespective of what they’ve won for it – but let’s consider what we’re celebrating here, really. We’re talking about a jury of well-known scholars coming together to consider a list of 200+ nominations and somehow picking only a half-dozen ‘winners’, and to those winners awarding a pure gold medal, a certificate and $100,000, or around Rs 74 lakh.

Most mediapersons pay attention to the Infosys Prizes because of the substantial purse, and when we do pay attention, what are we looking at? We’re looking at a lot of money going to a group of people who already have a good job and access to funds, especially in the name of a job well done that quite likely happened in the first place by virtue of having a good job and access to funds. The Infosys Prizes are in effect heaping more privilege on already privileged scientists.

Consider this year’s laureates, for example. Three of them – Hari Balakrishnan, Sourav Chatterjee and Raj Chetty – have full-time jobs at three of the world’s most well-endowed universities. Rajan Sankaranarayanan is a chief scientist at CCMB Hyderabad and runs his own lab. The sole female laureate this year, historian Prachi Deshpande, is at CSSS Kolkata and used to teach at the University of California, Berkeley. Arindam Ghosh is an associate professor at IISc Bangalore, again with his own lab. I can’t comment on the relative fortunes of Sankaranarayanan, Deshpande and Ghosh (although at least one other person from CCMB and six others from IISc have won Infosys Prizes, speaking to the localisation of resources and opportunities). But these are all scholars who have, as some might say, settled – scholars who have been able to sidestep or surmount, as the case may be, the numerous barriers to finding success and renown as an Indian scientist.

The case of Balakrishnan seems particularly curious (vis-à-vis the prize-giving entity, not Balakrishnan or any of the other laureates): he is a chair professor at MIT and the CTO at a six-person startup with $500 million in funding.

As an offshoot of what I said earlier, it is not unjust to reward people who have done good work – but too often we do so to the exclusion of those who lack the opportunities to begin doing good work in the first place. For example, instead of Balakrishnan, Chatterjee and Chetty, the prizes could have been awarded to three accomplished scientists working in India. And I argue that we need to reapply this criterion and select even other laureates who are yet to settle, so that we may ultimately expand the possibility of there being more successful scientists in future. Ultimately, we do need more successful scientists, not more laureates.

Of course, it isn’t implicitly wrong for any individual or entity to gift a large sum of money to anyone or any other entity (but perhaps it is bad in some cases). The wrongness arises when the money becomes part of a deleterious idea – such as that excellent scientists are men and/or that they succeeded by working alone. Thanks to their reputation, the Nobel Prizes are the foremost examples of this problem. As I wrote in The Wire recently:

That the prizes’ prestige is a construct, and not an innate attribute, matters because constructs represent intent. The construct of prestige or reputation surrounding the Nobel Prizes exists by reinforcing the beliefs and myths that some experts (in the relevant topics) held in order to maintain their privileges, to secrete away their power and perpetuate the status quo. That is, their intention here was to preserve the idea, and even glamourise it by attaching a purse of SEK 10 million (Rs 8.24 crore) with each Nobel Prize (no strings attached), that individuals make inventions and discoveries, and that men were always better at science than women, and more so than people of other genders.

The Infosys Prizes, as also the S.S. Bhatnagar Prize and the Swarnajayanti Fellowships in India, are different only in scale, not in spirit. They seem disinterested in addressing any of the issues, and seem keener on getting media attention. (By making this point, I hope I’m being clear that the media’s attitude towards the constitution of ‘news’ is also part of the problem.)

This year’s Infosys Prize laureates include only one woman; in all, 22% of laureates are women, fewer still if the social sciences are left out. And the prizes have only ever been awarded to individuals. This is disappointing because the prizes can do so much more by virtue, again, of the amount of money in play.

For example, the prize-giving foundation could give ‘senior’ laureates a citation, a certificate, etc., and split the purse into smaller chunks and award each one to promising young scientists, or those who are likely to have a hard time breaching science’s ‘in’ groups without good fortune. This could help separate the prizes’ extant wealth- and virtue-signalling from the distinction-signalling – as well as greatly expand some of the foundation’s other initiatives that directly help students.

I recently wrote with regard to the announcement of this year’s Swarnajayanti Fellowships, in mid-November, that resource constraints encourage us to think that only a few people can be selected for an award every time that award is given out. This in turn leads to the question about which candidates should be left out from the final pool of winners. And this question is to begin with singly misguided, becoming doubly misguided when it is used as a defence against questions about why so few women are awarded important recognitions, and triply misguided when the resource constraints are made-up, a fiction of funders and administrators to retain power.

Instead, we must demand more material wealth and supply it at the springboards of where young and/or struggling scientists take off. These scientists plus some other groups (incl. those from marginalised sections of society, those who need to learn the English language, even those who promise to stay in India for a decade, etc.) are in my view the only ‘segments’ that have justifiable need for not-insubstantial sums of money. Beyond this point, we can be generous with immaterial rewards for those who do good work and may no longer need the money.

Categories
Culture Op-eds

Why we need *some* borders between us

Borders are often a bad thing because they create separation that is unconducive for what are generally considered to be socially desirable outcomes. And they’re often instituted to maximise political outcomes, especially of the electoral variety. However, as electoral politics – and the decisions politicians make leading up to elections – become increasingly divisive, the people’s perception of politics, especially among those belonging to the middle classes, simultaneously becomes more cynical. At one point, those engaged in less political activities could even begin to see politics as a meaningless enterprise engaged solely in furthering the interests of the powerful.

This is a wholly justified conclusion given the circumstances but it’s also saddening since this cynicism is almost always paid for by writing off all political endeavours, and all the borders they maintain – and it is even more saddening now, in this time of protests, riots, apathy and deaths among the poor of hunger, of all things. This particular point is worth highlighting more now because space, especially human spaceflight, is in the news. Elon Musk’s SpaceX recently launched two astronauts to the International Space Station in history’s first crewed mission by a non-governmental company (that still subsists mostly on government funds).

For many decades, creators, engineers and officials alike have billed space as an escape, particularly in two ways. First, as a material volume of the universe that humanity is yet to occupy in any meaningful way, space is a frontier – a place other than Earth where there are some opportunities to survive but more importantly which could present a fresh start, a new way to do things that apparently benefits from millennia of civilisation on Earth that has only left us with great inequality and prejudice. Second, as a vast emptiness composed of literally nothing for billions of kilometres at a time, space imposes a ‘loneliness tax’ on Earth that – as many spaceflight entrepreneurs are fond of saying – should prompt us to remember that “we’re all in this together”.

However, the problem with both perspectives is that they gloss over borders, and when some borders disappear, our awareness of inequality disappears while inequality itself doesn’t. A common refrain aspiring spacefarers like to pitch is of the view of Earth from the Moon, accompanied by a gruff but nonetheless well-intentioned reminder that borders are of our own making, and that if we got rid of them and worked in humanity’s best-interests as a whole, we’d be able to achieve great things.

I call bullshit because without borders to constantly remind ourselves that invisible lines exist in the ground as well as in our minds that a Dalit or a black person can’t cross, no Dalit or black person – or even many women for that matter – can enter the spaceflight programme, leave alone get to the Moon.

More broadly, what many of those engaged in less-political work see as “unnecessary borders” are really discomfiting borders, a fact that became immutably apparent during India’s #MeToo uprising on Twitter in October-November 2018. Then, the mass of allegations and complaints pouring in every day indicated, among other things, that when inequality and discrimination have become ubiquitous, affording men and women equal opportunities by way of redressal can’t make the inequality and discrimination go away. Instead, women, and indeed all underprivileged groups, need affirmative action: to give more women, more Dalits, more black people, more transgender people, etc. access to more opportunities for a time until both the previously privileged groups and the newly privileged groups are on equal footing. It’s only then that they can really become equals.

A popular argument against this course of action has been that it will only create a new asymmetry instead of eradicating the old one. No; it’s important to recognise that we don’t need to eradicate privileges by eradicating opportunities, but to render privileges meaningless by ensuring all people have equal access to every new opportunity that we develop.

Another contention, though it doesn’t dress like a contention, is that we should also discuss why it’s important to have people of diverse identities around the table. But to me, this view is awfully close to the expectation of people from underprivileged groups to justify themselves, often more than those from privileged groups ever have for the same or equal positions. Instead, to quote Tarun Menon, of the National Institute for Advanced Studies, Bengaluru: “Deliberative democracy” – “a form of democracy in which deliberation is central to decision-making” (source) – “is key to any well-ordered democratic society, both because it helps ensure that a variety of concerns are taken into account in democratic decision-making, and because it grants legitimacy to decision-making by making it participatory.”

This is why borders are important – to define groups that need to be elevated, so to speak; without them, our economic and political structures will continue to benefit who they always have. And this is also why borders not used to achieve socially desirable outcomes are nothing but divides.

More importantly from the spaceflight bros’ point of view, when the borders we do need are erased, space will mostly be filled with white men, and a proportionately fewer number of people of other racial, ethnic, gender and caste identities – if at all.

Featured image: Daria Shevtsova/Pexels.

Categories
Op-eds Science

Freeman Dyson’s PhD

The physicist, thinker and writer Freeman Dyson passed away on February 28, 2020, at the age of 96. I wrote his obituary for The Wire Science; excerpt:

The 1965 Nobel Prize for the development of [quantum electrodynamics] excluded Dyson. … If this troubled Dyson, it didn’t show; indeed, anyone who knew him wouldn’t have expected differently. Dyson’s life, work, thought and writing is a testament to a philosophy of doing science that has rapidly faded through the 20th century, although this was due to an unlikely combination of privileges. For one, in 1986, he said of PhDs, “I think it’s a thoroughly bad system, so it’s not quite accidental that I didn’t get one, but it was convenient.” But he also admitted it was easier for him to get by without a PhD.

His QED paper, together with a clutch of others in mathematical physics, gave him a free-pass to more than just dabble in a variety of other interests, not all of them related to theoretical physics and quite a few wandering into science fiction. … In 1951, he was offered a position to teach at Cornell even though he didn’t have a doctorate.

Since his passing, many people have latched on to the idea that Dyson didn’t care for awards and that “he didn’t even bother getting a PhD” as if it were a difficult but inspiring personal choice, and celebrate it. It’s certainly an unlikely position to assume and makes for the sort of historical moment that those displeased with the status quo can anchor themselves to and swing from for reform, considering the greater centrality of PhDs to the research ecosystem together with the declining quality of PhD theses produced at ‘less elite’ institutions.

This said, I’m uncomfortable with such utterances when they don’t simultaneously acknowledge the privileges that secured for Dyson his undoubtedly deserved place in history. Even a casual reading of Dyson’s circumstances suggests he didn’t have to complete his doctoral thesis (under Hans Bethe at Cornell University) because he’d been offered a teaching position on the back of his contributions to the theory of quantum electrodynamics, and was hired by the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton a year later.

It’s important to mention – and thus remember – which privileges were at play so that a) we don’t end up unduly eulogising Dyson, or anyone else, and b) we don’t attribute Dyson’s choice to his individual personality alone instead of also admitting the circumstances Dyson was able to take for granted and which shielded him from adverse consequences. He “didn’t bother getting a PhD” because he wasn’t the worse for it; in one interview, he says he feels himself “very lucky” he “didn’t have to go through it”. On the other hand, even those who don’t care for awards today are better off with one or two because:

  • The nature of research has changed
  • Physics has become much more specialised than it was in 1948-1952
  • Degrees, grants, publications and awards have become proxies for excellence when sifting through increasingly overcrowded applicants’ pools
  • Guided by business decisions, journals definition of ‘good science’ has changed
  • Vannevar Bush’s “free play of free intellects” paradigm of administering research is much less in currency
  • Funding for science has dropped, partly because The War ended, and took a chunk of administrative freedom with it

The expectations of scientists have also changed. IIRC Dyson didn’t take on any PhD students, perhaps as a result of his dislike for the system (among other reasons because he believed it penalises students not interested in working on a single problem for many years at a time). But considering how the burdens on national education systems have shifted, his decision would be much harder to sustain today even if all of the other problems didn’t exist. Moreover, he has referred to his decision as a personal choice – that it wasn’t his “style” – so treating it as a prescription for others may mischaracterise the scope and nature of his disagreement.

However, questions about whether Dyson might have acted differently if he’d had to really fight the PhD system, which he certainly had problems with, are moot. I’m not discussing his stomach for a struggle nor am I trying to find fault with Dyson’s stance; the former is a pointless consideration and the latter would be misguided.

Instead, it seems to me to be a question of what we do know: Dyson didn’t get a PhD because he didn’t have to. His privileges were a part of his decision and cemented its consequences, and a proper telling of the account should accommodate them even if only to suggest a “Dysonian pride” in doing science requires a strong personality as well as a conspiracy of conditions lying beyond the individual’s control, and to ensure reform is directed against the right challenges.

Featured image: Freeman Dyson, October 2005. Credit: ioerror/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Categories
Op-eds Science

The alleged politicisation of science

“Don’t politicise X” has become the defence of choice for a class of scientists and public intellectuals in India whose class and caste privilege utterly blinds them to various inequities in the practice of science – as privilege is wont to do – and who labour with the presumption that these inequities, should they miraculously become aware of a few, don’t affect what new knowledge is produced and how it affects relationships predicated on a power imbalance in the wider society.

Consider a simple example: men and women are equally capable of being good scientists, but there aren’t many women the further down the academic pipeline you go because they have been driven out by their male colleagues’ and supervisors’ sexism and misogyny. As a result, a lot of modern scientific research simply collects the results of questions that men asked and questions that the same or other men answered. This problem impoverishes the scientific undertaking by depriving it of the insights and sensibilities of a significant section of society.

The way ahead from here should not be to ‘normalise’ things because the normal has come to mean the preservation of the status quo, in terms of protecting men and safeguarding their domains as temples of patriarchy; there can be progress only with near-constant struggle and pushback, and among non-male scientists as well as non-male workers, together with their male colleagues and peers, in all endeavours of modernity. It would in turn be impossible for such a historic movement to be non-political or apolitical.

A part of the problem is rooted in the demonisation of politics, at least the label itself. ‘To politicise’ has come to mean to infuse an endeavour with partisanship where there has thus far been harmony, with incentives that suppress intelligent decision-making with the simpler algorithms of populism. However, when such harmony and intelligence are products of oppression, they must go.

A male PI’s contention that women in the lab will “distract” men – as the Nobel laureate Tim Hunt said – or that they are unlikely to be available to run experiments owing to menstruation or pregnancy should prompt us to reexamine how labs are organised, the rights and freedoms of female lab-workers, and how the university frames the relationship between labour and research, and not have us considering if women should be allowed to work in labs at all. In a different context, many Indians on discussion forums and social media platforms have recently become fond of demanding that I, or anyone else, “shouldn’t politicise space”. But space has become interesting and lucrative only because it has been politicised.

“Politics,” according to Wikipedia, “is a set of activities associated with the governance of a country or an area.” In this regard, it should seem impossible for any endeavour, no matter how small or fleeting, to remain untouched by the influence of the politics of the people undertaking the endeavour. Caste-based and gender-based discrimination are obvious manifestations of this truism in Indian society; for another, consider the following snippet from an article I (first) published in July. It summarises the extent to which public policy influences the possible trajectories of scientific careers in India:

Consider a scientist from the developing world. Let’s say he is a male, English-speaking middle-class Brahmin so we can set aside the ceaseless discrimination the scientific community’s non-malenon-Hindu/non-upper-castenon-heterosexualIndian-language-speaking members face for the sake of our discussion. The picture has already been oversimplified. This scientist has access to some instruments, a few good labs, not many good mentors, irregular funding, not enough travel grants, subpar employment prospects, insufficient access to journals, lives in a polluted city with uneven public transport, rising costs of living, less water to spare and rising medical bills. If at this juncture we reinstate the less privileged Indian in this matrix, it becomes a near-chaotic picture of personal, social, economic and political problems. Even then, it is still only the substrate upon which international inequities – such as access to samples from other parts of India and the world, information published in journals that libraries can’t afford or exclusion from the editorial boards of scientific journals – will come to bear. Finally, there is the climate crisis and its discomfiting history.

For a less obvious example: Chandrayaan 2 has been widely touted as a technological as well as scientific mission. However, in the lead up to the mission’s launch on July 22 as well as after the unfortunate events of September 7, ISRO’s focus as well as that of the people and most journalists has remained on the mission’s technological aspects. In fact, ISRO chairman K. Sivan declared on September 22 that the mission had been a 98% success when its scientific phase had barely begun – that is, that Chandrayaan 2’s scientific mission constitutes only 2% of the whole thing.

As bizarre as this sounds, these proclamations are in line with ISRO’s relatively poor track record of executing sophisticated scientific missions. This should force us to confront the political economics of science administration in India – whereby those in power have become increasingly unwilling to fund non-applied research thanks to the rising influence of populist politics and its predilection for short-term gains. This is in addition to the relationships central and state-level funding agencies have with the receivers of their money, how such money is distributed between elite and non-elite institutes, and how nationalism shields ISRO from backlash as it centralises authority and further limits public outreach.

There are many other examples to illustrate that there is no such thing as the politicisation of X inasmuch as there is either the acknowledgment of this truth or its denial. But if you are still grasping for an out, there is one. There are two broad ways to divide the public perception of what politics is: the kind concerned with the principles by which we govern ourselves as a peaceful and productive society, and the kind concerned with maximising media exposure and perpetuating the inefficiencies of bureaucracy.

The influence of the former is inescapable by design and must be guided by reason and debate; the influence of the latter is regrettable and must be rejected for its small-mindedness at every opportunity. If one takes a charitable view of those fond of saying “don’t politicise X”, one would hope that they are speaking of politics of the second variety: the dirty realpolitik and its Machiavellian ambitions. But a less charitable, and an arguably more justified, view suggests that many scientists – in India at least – lack an appreciation of the politics of principles, a politics of social justice if you will.

Indeed, it is curious that many of them, together with many non-scientists as well, often prefer a more scientistic outlook, whereby the traditionally imagined ‘scientific’ disciplines and the knowledge these endeavours supply are considered to be incontestably superior to alternatives derived from, say, sociological studies or even paralogical systems like religion and traditional beliefs. To quote the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, “Neither science nor rationality are universal measures of excellence. They are particular traditions, unaware of their historical grounding.” (Source: Against Method, fourth ed., p. 223.)

But modern society considers politicisation to be a greater threat than scientism whereas historians of science brim with anecdotes about how the scientific endeavour remains constantly on the cusp of being weaponised in the absence of political safeguards that regulate its practice. The ongoing nationalist project to debase non-scientific research typifies this; to quote from an older post on this blog:

… the left has been painted as anti-fact and the right [as being guided] by righteous logic when in fact this is the result of the deeper dismissal of the validity of the social sciences and humanities, which have served throughout history to make facts right and workable in their various contexts. The right has appropriated the importance of quantitative measures – and that alone – and brandishes it like a torch. … And by attacking the validity of the social sciences and humanities, the left has effectively had the rug pulled out from under its feet, and the intellectual purpose of its existence delegitimised.

Not all of us may fully appreciate how we got here, but there is no question that we are indeed here – and that the way forward must be cognisant of, if not entirely critical of, the alleged politicisation of science and the political agendas of the perpetrators of this idea.

Categories
Life notes Op-eds

Some empathy for Treebeard's privilege

There’s a line from The Two Towers (2002) that’s really stayed with me:

I’m on nobody’s side because nobody is on my side.

It’s spoken by Treebeard, the Ent, to one of Meriadoc/Peregrin when asked whose side he was on: Saruman’s or the Fellowship’s. At first glance, it seems a fair answer because nobody has been bothered about the plight of the Ents since Saruman set up shop at Isengard. On second thought, however, you wonder what good it did to anyone when they didn’t bother to make their voices heard. If you shied away from political participation when it mattered, is it any surprise that you were subsequently excluded from decisions that impact you? And then, on third, it becomes pertinent to ask why the onus is on a community that has been continuously disenfranchised to speak up and make itself count. And so forth.

There are many parallels here to conversations that are had in the news everyday. Neha Sinha’s latest piece for The Wire is founded on almost the same premise: In the film Newton, the forest of Dandakaranya, its being a proxy for ecological democracy practiced by the Gond tribe that inhabits it, and the security forces’ relationship with the flora stands in for Tolkien’s Ents. It is not on the Gond to stand up and be counted.

I digress. As the headline of this post suggests, I’m on Treebeard’s side to the extent that I’m on nobody’s side because nobody is on my side. However, I’m not an Ent in Middle Earth; I’m a privileged upper-caste, upper-class English-speaking male – an acknowledgement that needs to be articulated because, even if I choose to be on nobody’s side and extricate myself from all proceedings, my privilege will get many things done for me. And the ‘proceedings’ I speak of is the news. I don’t have to keep myself abreast of all the political, financial, economic and judicial happenings in the country. As a journalist I might have to but as a citizen, I don’t. My skipping an important political development impacts – rather has impacted – my life as much as my bunking a class in engineering college has: not at all.

I don’t want to follow the news anymore. The bulk of it is faeces-flinging, from one side of the ideological aisle to the other. The bulk of it is mostly posturing unto the fulfilment of myopic goals, aimed at winning skirmishes but losing all sight of the war. And most of it is self-indulgent populism in that most news publishers print/publish what the people want to read; if this is not true, we’d be reading a lot more of non-mainstream writing (in English at least, the only language I read the news in). As I’ve said multiple times before, it’s important to sell. But on the flipside, I don’t see anyone even thinking about trying to sell something new. For example, as a recent dinner conversation with two friends concluded, where do you go to look for Indian literary journalism?

Of course, some news outlets – like The Wire (where I work) – are trying to move away from this featureset by ensuring that only the journalists at The Wire get to decide what to cover and what not to cover; the only other stakeholder in our enterprise is the reader, so axiomatically there are no business or political interests dictating our agenda. However, my specific ire is directed at a subset of what even The Wire has been trying to do, a subset that represents a perception of the news that no single news outlet can attempt to modify by itself. Specifically, I’m on no journalist’s side because no journalist is on my side – the side that believes that political journalism is not the raison d’être of the fourth estate.

This isn’t a call (muted though it is) to eradicate political journalism. I’m saying that political journalism is a necessary but not sufficient component of the practice of journalism. Granted, the national polity is the ultimate seat of all power in the country, the Well of Eternity from which all life on Azeroth flows. But to prioritise the coverage of it over many other topics is, to me, a quiet surrender. Journalists flock to it because it’s easy to score ‘hits’ with; you draw blood by covering politics, and ‘change the world’ therewith, because the blood flows thick and fast there. But when was the last time news organisations attempted to draw blood from suppressed veins? To put it in less sanguine terms: when was the last time news organisations tried to investigate parts of our reality where power festers but not ostentatiously?

To me, in many ways, this is the physical world and the natural laws that govern it, the world where groups of people called scientists undertake expeditions – intellectually and otherwise – to unravel the foundations of civilisation as well as destiny. Science journalism is only another vantage point, just the way politics and business are vantage points, from which to survey our lives. However, to ignore one in favour of the Others simply because the Others are easier to communicate, easier to resonate with, is a copout. In fact, I believe that the blood flows thick and fast in cis-/peri-science matters as well; many simple don’t know where to look nor are interested.

Some also argue that science by itself won’t suffice to effect change, that it has to be coupled with policy, i.e. with an outside-in gaze. However, this is mostly the view of science from politics’ point of view, whereby political considerations influence our engagement with science. What is lacking is the other way round: where, for example, there is a public debate about why people who clean the toilets in a household can’t also cook in the same household, where a confrontation is encouraged between the chemistry of disinfectants and the socio-cultural beliefs rooted in caste traditions – instead of sidelining scientific knowledge to the margins.

This clause I’ve marked in italics is an indictment of the media, not of anyone else, because the media space is where it is the most lacking. Where activists and their allies on the ground might be going from door to door explaining how disinfectants work to the uninitiated, where educationists and young schoolchildren will be teaching each other about the deleterious effects of burning sulphur-laden firecrackers during Deepavali, most journalists have briefly cited this or that bit of research and moved on to discuss the social, cultural, political, etc. implications. In other words, it’s not that scientific knowledge alone must dictate our public life; that would be disastrous. It’s that, at least in my opinion, science gets less space than it truly deserves in the way we compose, and consume, our news.

Instead, our ideas of ‘newness’ within the context of journalism, at least in India, have become boxed in. ‘New media’ has become limited to the use of unfamiliar mediums to communicate the same thing we were communicating before in new ways. From what I’ve seen, there is a vanishing amount of introspection in most newsrooms about why we cover news the way we do, how the invention of different communication technologies influenced that decision, and what parts of the hitherto sidelined topics do new technologies open up.

If we don’t ask this question more often of ourselves as journalists, I fear political news is going to remain the mainstay of mainstream journalism in India, a traffic-hogging bully that shoves other, possibly more meaningful points of view down.

Featured image: Treebeard in ‘The Two Towers’. Source: YouTube.

Categories
Life notes Op-eds

Some empathy for Treebeard’s privilege

There’s a line from The Two Towers (2002) that’s really stayed with me:

I’m on nobody’s side because nobody is on my side.

It’s spoken by Treebeard, the Ent, to one of Meriadoc/Peregrin when asked whose side he was on: Saruman’s or the Fellowship’s. At first glance, it seems a fair answer because nobody has been bothered about the plight of the Ents since Saruman set up shop at Isengard. On second thought, however, you wonder what good it did to anyone when they didn’t bother to make their voices heard. If you shied away from political participation when it mattered, is it any surprise that you were subsequently excluded from decisions that impact you? And then, on third, it becomes pertinent to ask why the onus is on a community that has been continuously disenfranchised to speak up and make itself count. And so forth.

There are many parallels here to conversations that are had in the news everyday. Neha Sinha’s latest piece for The Wire is founded on almost the same premise: In the film Newton, the forest of Dandakaranya, its being a proxy for ecological democracy practiced by the Gond tribe that inhabits it, and the security forces’ relationship with the flora stands in for Tolkien’s Ents. It is not on the Gond to stand up and be counted.

I digress. As the headline of this post suggests, I’m on Treebeard’s side to the extent that I’m on nobody’s side because nobody is on my side. However, I’m not an Ent in Middle Earth; I’m a privileged upper-caste, upper-class English-speaking male – an acknowledgement that needs to be articulated because, even if I choose to be on nobody’s side and extricate myself from all proceedings, my privilege will get many things done for me. And the ‘proceedings’ I speak of is the news. I don’t have to keep myself abreast of all the political, financial, economic and judicial happenings in the country. As a journalist I might have to but as a citizen, I don’t. My skipping an important political development impacts – rather has impacted – my life as much as my bunking a class in engineering college has: not at all.

I don’t want to follow the news anymore. The bulk of it is faeces-flinging, from one side of the ideological aisle to the other. The bulk of it is mostly posturing unto the fulfilment of myopic goals, aimed at winning skirmishes but losing all sight of the war. And most of it is self-indulgent populism in that most news publishers print/publish what the people want to read; if this is not true, we’d be reading a lot more of non-mainstream writing (in English at least, the only language I read the news in). As I’ve said multiple times before, it’s important to sell. But on the flipside, I don’t see anyone even thinking about trying to sell something new. For example, as a recent dinner conversation with two friends concluded, where do you go to look for Indian literary journalism?

Of course, some news outlets – like The Wire (where I work) – are trying to move away from this featureset by ensuring that only the journalists at The Wire get to decide what to cover and what not to cover; the only other stakeholder in our enterprise is the reader, so axiomatically there are no business or political interests dictating our agenda. However, my specific ire is directed at a subset of what even The Wire has been trying to do, a subset that represents a perception of the news that no single news outlet can attempt to modify by itself. Specifically, I’m on no journalist’s side because no journalist is on my side – the side that believes that political journalism is not the raison d’être of the fourth estate.

This isn’t a call (muted though it is) to eradicate political journalism. I’m saying that political journalism is a necessary but not sufficient component of the practice of journalism. Granted, the national polity is the ultimate seat of all power in the country, the Well of Eternity from which all life on Azeroth flows. But to prioritise the coverage of it over many other topics is, to me, a quiet surrender. Journalists flock to it because it’s easy to score ‘hits’ with; you draw blood by covering politics, and ‘change the world’ therewith, because the blood flows thick and fast there. But when was the last time news organisations attempted to draw blood from suppressed veins? To put it in less sanguine terms: when was the last time news organisations tried to investigate parts of our reality where power festers but not ostentatiously?

To me, in many ways, this is the physical world and the natural laws that govern it, the world where groups of people called scientists undertake expeditions – intellectually and otherwise – to unravel the foundations of civilisation as well as destiny. Science journalism is only another vantage point, just the way politics and business are vantage points, from which to survey our lives. However, to ignore one in favour of the Others simply because the Others are easier to communicate, easier to resonate with, is a copout. In fact, I believe that the blood flows thick and fast in cis-/peri-science matters as well; many simple don’t know where to look nor are interested.

Some also argue that science by itself won’t suffice to effect change, that it has to be coupled with policy, i.e. with an outside-in gaze. However, this is mostly the view of science from politics’ point of view, whereby political considerations influence our engagement with science. What is lacking is the other way round: where, for example, there is a public debate about why people who clean the toilets in a household can’t also cook in the same household, where a confrontation is encouraged between the chemistry of disinfectants and the socio-cultural beliefs rooted in caste traditions – instead of sidelining scientific knowledge to the margins.

This clause I’ve marked in italics is an indictment of the media, not of anyone else, because the media space is where it is the most lacking. Where activists and their allies on the ground might be going from door to door explaining how disinfectants work to the uninitiated, where educationists and young schoolchildren will be teaching each other about the deleterious effects of burning sulphur-laden firecrackers during Deepavali, most journalists have briefly cited this or that bit of research and moved on to discuss the social, cultural, political, etc. implications. In other words, it’s not that scientific knowledge alone must dictate our public life; that would be disastrous. It’s that, at least in my opinion, science gets less space than it truly deserves in the way we compose, and consume, our news.

Instead, our ideas of ‘newness’ within the context of journalism, at least in India, have become boxed in. ‘New media’ has become limited to the use of unfamiliar mediums to communicate the same thing we were communicating before in new ways. From what I’ve seen, there is a vanishing amount of introspection in most newsrooms about why we cover news the way we do, how the invention of different communication technologies influenced that decision, and what parts of the hitherto sidelined topics do new technologies open up.

If we don’t ask this question more often of ourselves as journalists, I fear political news is going to remain the mainstay of mainstream journalism in India, a traffic-hogging bully that shoves other, possibly more meaningful points of view down.

Featured image: Treebeard in ‘The Two Towers’. Source: YouTube.

Categories
Life notes Op-eds Scicomm

Taking the ringdown route to understanding the humans of science

What follows is an attempt to process and understand Cassandra Willyard’s post on Last Word on Nothing, about her preferring the humanised stories of science over the stories of the science itself (“Physics writers, this is how you nab the physics haters — human emotion”; my previous post on this is here). He words have been weighing on my mind – as they have been on others’ – because of the specific issues that they explored: humanising the process of science, and to be able to look at all science stories through the humanised lens. By humanising the process of science, it’s not that the science takes a backseat; instead, the centrepiece of the story is the human. Creating such stories is obviously not a problem for/to anyone. The problems come to be when, per the second issue, people start obsessing over such stories.

At this point, I’m not speaking for anyone but myself; nor is my post written in the usual upside-down pyramid style, rather the other way round. Second: I deviate significantly from Willyard’s post’s demesne because I’m just following my thoughts-current on the subject. I’m tempted to use a metaphor: that of the ringdown, the phase when two blackholes that have merged settle down into a stable, unified shape.

I

By virtue of not being about people, or humans in general, science stories without the human component are a hard-sell. Willyard’s right when she says that humans are interested in stories about other humans – but I think what she’s taking for granted here is that humans being interested only in stories about other humans is fair. It’s definitely tenable, but is it fair? The sense of fairness in this context emerges from the idea that it’s not okay for us to consume – while we’re alive the one time we are – only that which immediately affects us. Instead, we must make room for the truly wonderful, and identify and appreciate the kinds of beauty that transcend utility, that would be beautiful from all points of view and not just our own.

If such appreciation had been shared by all consumers of journalism, then producing pure-science stories would be a breeze. But in reality, it’s anything but. This is why advocating for the persistent humanisation of science is almost offensive: humanised science sells very well; it does not need a shot in the arm, nor a platform like Last Word on Nothing, to help its cause. It is an economically privileged form of science journalism that has no right to complain.

To be sure, Willyard is neither calling for the persistent humanisation of science nor is she complaining that humanised stories of science are not the norm. That said, however, I feel that she is downplaying the importance of non-humanised science stories from a very pragmatic perspective: her grounds are that they’re not emotional enough – which suggests she’s saying that emotions are important. Why? Emotions are easy to market; emotions are easy tools of interpersonal communication, especially ones that can transcend language, culture and enterprise.

A part of my indignation towards her post emerges from this endpoint: the axiomatic inference that that which lacks emotions is unimportant, and that such a suggestion disparages an entire branch of science communication that seeks to explore science without simultaneously exploring the human condition. What also contributes to my sentiment being what it is is the fact that Willyard is a science journalist – she’s one of us – and for her to make such distinctions, for her to declare such preferences without also exploring their underlying economics, feels like she’s being either myopic or selfish.

(I must clarify that though I’ve used big words like ‘selfish’, I’m feeling them in a more diluted form.)

II

Humanised science is almost populist as well. In India, many newsrooms publish such stories without having to call it science, and they don’t. They’re disguised as ‘science and society’, ‘science policy’, ‘higher education’, ‘public administration’, etc. You, my reader, consume these kinds of science stories regularly, without having to be lured into the copy or being given extra incentives. You’re definitely interested.

… except for one small genre of the whole thing: pure science, the substrate on which all else that you’re reading about is founded, but which has over time become sidelined, ostracised into the ‘Other’, the freak show reserved for nerds and geeks, the thing which scares you without making you question that fear. (“I’m scared of math! I gave up working with numbers a long time ago.” Why the actual fuck? “No idea. I see an equation and I’m just scared.”)

The reason I’m so riled up (which I didn’t realise until I began writing this sentence – and that’s why I write this blog) was something I recently discussed with my friend O.A. at a party organised by The Wire. That was when I’d first heard about C.P. Snow’s ‘two cultures’ essay, which O.A. mentioned in the context of a spate of news reports discussing hydrological issues in agriculture.

O.A. said, “People don’t understand how water works in agriculture. I read something about someone trying to estimate how much water a crop uses in a season and then, with that information, trying to determine how much water we’re losing across our borders when we export that crop to other countries. The whole method is so stupid.” (This conversation happened a few months ago, so I’m rephrasing/paraphrasing.)

It really is stupid: evaluating agriculture – even when at the level of a single crop sown in one reason in a single acre of land – in terms of just one of the resources it utilises makes no sense. Moreover, the water used to grow a crop does not rest in the produce; it seeps into the soil, runs off, evaporates, it reenters our local ecosystems in so many ways. What made this ‘analysis’ stupider was that (a) it appeared in a leading business daily and (b) the analyst was a senior bureaucrat of some kind.

O.A. went on to describe a fundamental disconnection between the language of India’s policymakers and the language of India’s farmers and labourers, a disconnection he said was only symptomatic of the former’s broad-brushstroke ideas being so far removed from the material substance of the enterprises they were responsible for regulating. He then provided some other examples: fuel subsidies for fishermen, petroleum distribution, solar power grid-feeding, etc.

This kind of disconnection comes to be when you know more about the logistics of a product or service than about how its physical nature defines its abilities and limitations. And more often than not, investigations of this physical nature neither require nor benefit from having their ‘stories’ humanised. There are so many natural wonders that populate the world we engage with, that have quietly but surely revolutionised our lives in many ways, whose potential to enhance–

III

Fuck, there I go, thinking about the universe in terms of humans. I concede that it’s a very fine line to inhabit – exploring our universe without thinking about humans… Maybe I should just get it out of my system: without understanding how the universe works, we as a species cannot hope to forever improve our quality of life; and, disconcertingly, this includes the act of being awed by natural beauty! It’s like Joey’s challenge to Phoebe in Friends: “There are no selfless acts.”

BUT we first do need to understand how the universe works in non-human, non-utilitarian terms. Asking if such a thing is even possible is a legitimate question but I also think that’s a separate conversation. We consume the pure science that we do because it’s what caught someone else’s fancy, it’s what a scientific journal is pushing in our faces, it’s what a scientist is thinking about in a well-funded research lab in the First World. There are many biases to overcome before we can truly claim to be in the presence of unadulterated/unmitigated beauty, before we can have that conversation about whether objective beauty really exists. However, the way to begin would be by acknowledging these biases exist and working to overcome them.

To those asking why should we at all – I’d have said “we should because I think so, and it’s up to you to trust me or not”, but I don’t because a lot of science writers around the world feel the same way, which means we have something in common. I don’t know what this something is but, thanks to the wellspring of responses Willyard’s post received, I know that I must find out.

Finally, I know that Willyard’s post doesn’t preclude all these possibilities. It simply asks that we get those uninterested in physics to give a damn by using the humans of physics as a conduit of interestingness. After all, the human condition may be a vanishingly small part of the cosmic condition that we partake of, that we have used to construct civilisation, and everything else out there may be cold, cold space – but humans are the way the universe examines itself.

My reservations exist in a very specific context: that of science journalism in India, specifically the India of pseudoscience, fake news, caste conflicts and broken education. In this context, I’m constantly anxious about becoming a selloff – a writer who gives up someday and trades his conviction in the power of pure science to help us think more clearly about our fraught communities and governments off in exchange for easy career progression.

fin.

Featured image: A simulation showing a binary blackhole pair (as seen by a nearby observer) spiralling around each other before they merge. Credit: Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes Lensing/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Categories
Scicomm

Some thoughts on the Mack/Dorigo Twitter exchange, and Zivkovic, Feyerabend, etc.

This exchange made me squirm:

(In case Dorigo deletes his tweets, screenshots here, here and here.)

If you didn’t know: Katherine Mack is a theoretical astrophysicist at Melbourne University and Tommaso Dorigo is an Italian particle physicist working at CERN. Mack’s Twitter feed is one of the best places to learn about astrophysics, and Dorigo’s blog is one of my preferred sources of information and analysis of LHC results. I consider them both very knowledgeable people. At least, I used to – until this short exchange on Twitter disabused me of the notion that they might be equally knowledgeable.

As my friend put it, Dorigo’s comment “makes it sound like being bi is a privilege” – especially since Mack goes on to detail the non-privileges being bisexual comes with. While I’m familiar with the issues surrounding gender and sexuality, I’m not entirely conversant with them, and yet even I know that Dorigo is being facile and refusing to engage substantively with the topic at hand. His response to Mack’s sharing the link is proof enough, conflating two attributes in a way that makes no sense:

I’m inclined to call this “Dorigo’s fall from my graces”. Some would argue that we ought to separate his technical expertise with his views on topics that seem to not directly relate to what made me pay attention to him in the first place. But I’m becoming increasingly wary of this line, particularly since allegations of sexual harassment were visited upon Woody Allen in 2014. While many hold that an appreciation of his films doesn’t require one to be okay what kind of a person he is, I disagree because the separation of professional achievements and personal conduct overlooks how one might enable the other, and together help establish structures of power and authority.

My example of choice with which to illustrate this is Bora Zivkovic, the former ‘All Father’ of Scientific American‘s famous network of blogs. His leadership as well as abilities as a communicator made young and aspiring writers flock to him for advice and favours. However, a string of allegations (of harassment and impropriety) emerged in 2013 that put paid to his job and, at least temporarily, his career. It was obvious at the time the scandal broke out that Zivkovic had abused his position of power to take advantage of trustful women and solicit crass things from them. When I first heard the news, I was devastated.

Now, science – rather, STEM – and science journalism already have a problem retaining women in their ranks. When they do, sexual abuse, harassment and sexism are rampant, often ensconced within organisational structures that struggle to remain cognisant of these issues. So when you embed men like Zivkovic and Dorigo – and, of course, Geoff Marcy – into these structures, you automatically infuse the structures with insensitivity, ignorance, etc., as well as increase the risk of women running into such men. And by paying attention to Dorigo – even when he’s talking about hadron-hadron collisions – I feel like I will be feeding his sense of relevance and legitimising his persistence as a scholar of note.

(Caveat: I’m keenly aware that mine could be a precarious position because it could displace a very large number of people from my self-aggrandising graces, but I choose to believe that there are still very many people who are good, who are aware, sensible and sensitive, who are not abusive. Katherine Mack is a living example; Dorigo would’ve been, too, if he’d had the good sense to apologise and back off.)

So where does Paul Feyerabend fit in?

From his Against Method (fourth edition, 2010; p. 169-170):

I have much sympathy with the view, formulated clearly and elegantly by Whorf (and anticipated by Bacon), that languages and the reaction patterns they involve are not merely instruments for describing events (facts, states of affairs), but that they are also shapers of events (facts, states of affairs), that their ‘grammar’ contains a cosmology, a comprehensive view of the world, of society, of the situation of man which influences thought, behaviour, perception. … Covert classifications (which, because of their subterranean nature, are ‘sensed rather than comprehended – awareness of [them] has an intuitive quality – which ‘are quite apt to be more rational than over ones’ and which may be very ‘subtle’ and not connected ‘with any grand dichotomy’) create ‘patterned resistances to widely divergent points of view’.

(Emphases in the original.) Our language influences the weltanschauung we build together. While Feyerabend may have written his words in relation to his idea of incommensurability in the philosophy of science, their implications are evident in many spheres of human endeavour. For example, consider product advertisement: a brand identity is an intangible thing, an emotion trapped within a cage of words, yet it is built and projected through tangible things like design and marketing all embodying that emotion.

Similarly, involving this or that scientist in a conversation is to include a certain point of view that – even in the presence of robust safeguards – suggests not an endorsement but definitely a willingness to ignore something that may not always be ignorable.

Featured image credit: coldbrook/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Categories
Op-eds Science

To be a reporter in wintertime Delhi

I recently moved out of Delhi. The air made it easier to decide to leave. What I’ve learnt is that a source of amusement to many friends in the country’s south is actually a nightmare up north, where a five-minute stroll outside can leave you with an irritated throat, watering eyes and the feeling that something is burning its way through your nose. In the week right after Deepavali, you woke up in the morning smelling something toasty; the view through your window was always more brown than it ought to be. You couldn’t go to and return from work without feeling short of breath – irrespective of how you travelled.

The effects of the disaster are undoubtedly classist, sometimes more than they need to be. Recently, Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal announced that air purifiers would be installed at a few major traffic intersections around Delhi to clean the air. Sarath Guttikunda, a scientist and environmental activist, wrote for The Wire about the vacuity of Kejriwal’s desperation, that he would resort to a downstream solution that would affect so few people in the city instead effecting something upstream – at the sources – that would help everyone. What about those who can’t afford air filters? What about those who live on the roads?

The scale of changes that will have to be implemented implies Delhi’s wintertime pollution problem will maintain its classist manifestation for a few years at least – assuming the changes are implemented at all. To quote Guttikunda, they are, broadly, to increase the quality of public transportation and reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills. The issue here is that – assuming you’re a middle-class person with a job that pays 25k to 75k a month – unless your employers are reasonable and/or considerate, you’re not going to get time off work unless the pollution renders you bed-ridden for the day.

Delhi has four popular public transportation options: auto, bus, metro and cab (Ola/Uber). There are also rickshaws but they operate over shorter distances. Only the metro is immune to traffic jams, although they’re often packed to the rafters with passengers. The other modes contribute to and are stuck in jams regularly, especially when going from south Delhi, east Delhi and Gurgaon to central Delhi in the morning and the other way in the evening. If you want to get to work on time, the metro is your best option.

Even then, however, given the number of stations together with the size of the city, the odds of finding a metro station close to home as well as to the workplace are quite low. You’re going to have to walk, or take an auto/rickshaw, through the crappy air over the course of a few arduous minutes.

What’re these minutes of exposure going to do, you ask? Deepak Natarajan, a cardiologist in Delhi, has a list of diseases likelier to beset you after short-term exposure to heightened PM2.5 levels:

  1. Acute myocardial infarction
  2. Unstable angina
  3. Increased likelihood of heart attacks by 8-26%
  4. Heightened risk of thrombosis
  5. Endothelial dysfunction,

and a host of other cardiovascular ailments. As Natarajan writes, air pollution kills more people every year than AIDS and malaria. The next time you’re walking through the smog, imagine what it would be like to walk through a cloud of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

There are no laws securing anyone’s choice to not work – or at least to not have to visit the workplace – with that bilious overhang. Consider the plight of journalists. Reporters among them have an especial obligation to spend time outside, and the more seasoned among them seldom think about the pollution as a vocational hazard. It’s a job that requires a modicum of physiological fitness that’s also almost never discussed. In fact, the conversation is swept away by the pretext of a ‘reporter allowance’.

Just the way poverty makes all the small, niggling issues in life seem more maddening, a rapidly shrinking set of class-sensitive solutions available to those labouring in wintertime Delhi can drive people similarly close to the edge, such as auto-drivers refusing rides to certain areas, a perpetual shortage of buses and surge pricing. We all know these are not immediately fixable, so pull a Kejriwal and head downstream to check in on your local news-bearers.

Journalists’ employers’ attitude matters because Delhi’s pollution becomes easier to live through the more privileged you are. CEOs are paid more than senior reporters, so the way they experience pollution season is very different, especially considering the urban architecture. Many media houses, almost all government offices and the city’s richer people are all situated in central Delhi, which is marked by open spaces, abundant greenery, its radial outlay and wide roads – all contributing to the reduced prevalence of dust. The cost of living drops as you move further away from this area (with a marked drop once you exit the radial areas). This means the hierarchy in a journalist’s workplace is likely to be mirrored by each employee’s residence’s proximity to central Delhi – which is also a proximity by proxy to healthiness.

Privilege, as has often been the case, often blinds those who enjoy it to the travails of those who don’t. In this case, for example, it is established by having access to the following (at a reasonable cost):

  1. A house in a clean neighbourhood, away from dusty roads
  2. Abundant greenery in your immediate neighbourhood
  3. An air-conditioner
  4. Air filters/purifiers/fresheners
  5. A car
  6. A proximate workplace
  7. Clean, well-maintained public spaces
  8. Sufficient time and/or resources to keep the house clean
  9. Affordable medicines and access to medical assistance

Without access to them, daily life can be quite disorderly, unfulfilling and hard to establish a routine with, especially if like me you can’t live this way without a toll on your productivity and peace of mind. So Delhi’s pollution imposes high entry barriers for healthy living on its residents and which become less surmountable the farther away from the city’s centre you are. If you’re a reporter, you’re likelier to have it well and truly harder than most others of your means, thanks to central Delhi being cleaner, areas farther more removed from it cheaper, air pollution being easier to live through the more privileged you are, and there being no laws to secure your right to a clean working environment.

To address these issues, reporters in wintertime Delhi should receive an additional allowance as well as shorter and more flexible working hours. Other staffers should also be allowed to work from where they feel comfortable apart from receiving an allowance that will help cover medical expenses, to begin with. Those who can’t or won’t should be kept mindful of what they are asking their journalists to give up and compensate them accordingly as and when opportunities arise. Even so, no amount of fondness or pride for situating themselves in the national capital can save journalism establishments from the steady toll the city is taking on their journalists.

Featured image credit: souravdas/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.